The publication pipeline

hat someHow did that submission go? Did you get it accepted?

Yes, all in – reviews done. Now I’m at the foot of Everest again.

The foot of Everest?

Yes… I’ve not really got any writing in progress, so I’m starting again from scratch.

The first time I published, it felt like that. The process was very one-directional. I wrote, I submitted it, I dealt with the reviews, I resubmitted, it was published.

Because it was so single-minded, it was relatively easy. I just did what I needed to do, and then waited for instructions from the editor. But it also took a long time. From initial idea to print, the process was on and off, and lasted a full 2.5 years.

Both of those things – the ease, and the time – aren’t a problem if you’re starting out as an academic. But they become more problematic if you need to be publishing more often. A more recent journal article took me and a co-author nearly 5 years from conception to print.

Adding the time for the first and second publications together, that’s two publications in 7.5 years. That’s waaaay too slow for any kind of academic CV. 

Besides which, my head doesn’t dish up one idea at a time and then wait until that idea is in print before giving me another. Instead, it constantly whispers to me, tempting me with this idea and that; layering them on top of each other, this one for a book, that one for an article, this conference paper, that blog post, and so on.

Rather than one writing project, I now have, on the go:

  • a handful of interesting conference paper ideas
  • a half-written book
  • an intro and chapter to write for an edited volume (which I’m also editing, so I have the editing work for that too)
  • three other book ideas that are quite well shaped
  • a well-developed article that needs sharpening and submitting to a journal
  • two other articles that have emerged from data that need writing
  • ideas for another article that needs sense-checking with some data collection
  • a rejected grant proposal that needs reworking
  • a new grant proposal that needs scoping and writing from scratch

Clearly, trying to work on all of these at the same time would lead to that paralysis that comes from trying to do everything, and achieving nothing.

The idea of a Pipeline

To get around this, those with more experience suggest building a ‘publication pipeline’ which starts with ideas, and ends with publications in print, and has – distributed along it – all the other publications in various stages of completion.

My publication pipeline has three main areas:

three cycles, planning and prioritisation, research and writing, reviewing and submissionPreparation

The first is ‘preparation’ – here, I have all the things that I might think about before actually getting on with the writing.

  • Coming up with ideas – Sometimes out of background reading and thinking. But sometimes from something that I’ve read about in stage two and that I think is worth pursuing as a writing project in its own right.
  • Prioritising – A book is important, but an article or chapter is quicker. A conference abstract is very quick – but comes with a commitment to then write the paper (if accepted) to a deadline that I can’t really control. Grants, similarly, have to be written to panel dates. I do love to do the quicker projects, but they push back the bigger (potentially more significant) ones.
  • Structuring – Do I really know what I want to write? Is there one idea? Is it clear? Can I put a structure down on paper that outlines the project? (If not, go back to the start!)
  • Planning – A paper takes a month or two, and can be written in more ‘regular’ term-time weeks. A book is longer, goes through more stages, and overlaps with school holidays, travel, conferences, archive closures. A paper proposal can be done in an afternoon, but then might be accepted more quickly which gives me a deadline for writing the full paper. I might be waiting for reviewers’ comments which need a quick turnaround. Some things require massive concentration, some very little. Can I do only one thing, or can I be writing X in the morning, and Y in the afternoon?

This stage isn’t clean (none of them are), and is full of lists, proposals, post-its in queues, all of which are regularly revised as opportunities pop up and deadlines change. It often requires hard decisions about how much I can take on, discussions with co-authors and colleagues about the relative value of each project. In the end, it should output a relatively stable timetable for writing, which is where the next stage comes in.

Writing

I don’t consider writing to be just ‘writing’. I consider writing anything that results in actually producing words in a document. So that might be:

  • Research and data collection – I’m an historian, so I spend a lot of time in archives gathering the data that I need for a particular project.
  • Reading and thinking – This is similar, and it’s me going back to the literature, or talking out thoughts with others, so that I can write them with clarity.
  • Drafting/writing – Are pretty much different flavours of the same process which starts with a blank sheet of paper, and ends with me (by draft 25+ !) holding something I’m happy to submit. Often, during this stage, there’s a ‘rough’ draft which eventually morphs into a ‘finished’ draft, which I then feel comfortable showing to someone I trust. Then there’s a ‘re-draft’, and a ‘final draft’ which I show again… before I get to the final submission version. All of that is ‘writing’.

Publication

I call the final stage ‘publication’ because, by this point, I’m usually happy that I have something that is worth publishing (or presenting, in the case of a paper).

Sometimes you know that something will be accepted before you start writing – book chapters, conference papers and the like – and you then do your best to live up to the expectations of the commissioning editor/organiser. For most projects, however, you’ll be submitting an untested, mostly finished manuscript. I say ‘mostly finished’ because, although you want to try and make it as good as possible, there’s a law of diminishing returns that seems to operate at the end of writing, which involves putting in hours and hours of work to polish and tweak, without really delivering any substantial improvement. Since reviewers will probably find something to change anyway, I try to stop when something feels about 97% there, and let the review process do the rest.

The review process itself involves intense, exacting work (submitting, carefully, following all of the guidelines and requirements), followed by long periods of waiting… followed by more periods of intense, exacting work (to address reviewers comments), followed by more periods of waiting.

It’s a process that you appear to have little control over, and that runs according to someone else’s timetable.

It’s also probably the stage that trumps all the others, because it leads directly to your work coming out in print.

But because of that, it can put all the other stages on ice, without much warning.

Fitting it all together

Received wisdom suggests that, at any one time, you want two projects in each stage. So you start with two in preparation, which you move into writing and start working on. At the same time, you then draw two more into the more serious end of preparation and start planning them so that, as one of the projects in ‘writing’ is sent for review, you can then re-fill ‘writing’ with a second project, and begin to consider another one in planning, etc.

If this goes according to plan, then you end up with a pipeline that allows you to keep adding regular publications to your CV, work on both large (long-term) and small (short-term) projects in tandem, maintain a bank of ideas that you can pull from as you like, and make space for the inevitable interruptions that come from the publication stage.

But of course, it’s never quite as simple as that.

Common problems I’ve heard of are:

  • Failing to police the boundaries between stages strongly enough. A number of academics I know (including myself – because I want to play with all the lovely ideas, and I’m a perfectionist, so I struggle to consider anything good enough!!) end up pulling more and more projects into writing, without pushing any through to publication.
  • Delays at the final stage, so that papers submitted at regular intervals from stage 2 come back all in a clump, putting the brakes on new writing until the backlog is cleared.
  • Needing to push through several publications for a particular date (grant end, REF etc.), which then all go through together, and leave you with nothing to work on.
  • Having a ‘mouldy’ project – a long-term book or paper that you can’t find time to finish, but you can’t bear to give up on, which just hogs space and effectively squeezes the pipeline down to one project at a time.
  • Filling the pipeline with quick turnaround projects, which are satisfying to finish, but significantly less valuable than longer term projects.

And then, of course, there are lots of academics who publish plenty by simply working on one thing at a time. They interlace big and small projects, pushing each one out to review before taking the next out of planning.

So what to do?

If you’re at the ‘Everest all over again’ stage (see the top of the post), then you don’t have to leap for two items in one go. The main challenge is to have something ready so that, as soon as you’ve submitted, you can avoid the (average 6 month delay) by having something to work on immediately. If that’s where you’re at, then try using the pipeline, but just for one item. Have one in prep, one in writing and one in review… that’ll lead to three published pretty quickly, with three more on the way.

And then, basically, try stuff – and see what happens.

Add in a (small?) second project. How did that go? Did you write them at the same time, or flip flop between them? Why? What would you need to do differently to be able to write two at a a time?

And ask yourself whether you even need to? As this discussion suggests, the required publication rate in some fields is about 1 journal article a year.

If that’s the case, why would you publish any more?

(but that’s the subject for another post).

Further reading:

See a couple of other blog posts on this subject, at

Erin Furtak, at https://www.chronicle.com/article/My-Writing-Productivity/236712

Someone who tried Erin’s approach, at https://flgowrley.wordpress.com/2016/07/08/the-writing-productivity-pipeline/

Another post from the Patter blog: https://patthomson.net/2014/05/19/my-academic-writing-pipeline/

 

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